Mt. Pleasant has plenty of casual watering holes, but the three owners of the Shelter were looking for more than a watering hole. They wanted to find the perfect hangout, a place where they could find everything they wanted, which for them came down to "cold beer, drinks to suit any situation, good food, friendly service, and reasonable prices." Apparently, they were having a hard time finding such a place so they decided to build the Shelter. The packed deck overlooking Coleman Boulevard indicates they have found plenty of people willing to hang out with them, but does the Shelter deliver on their promises?
First, let's address that old-fashioned desire for cold beer. The eight-tap dispensary pours extremely cold beer. So cold that frost covers the tap system. So cold that a pint of Allagash Tripel was slushy when set down before me. So cold that the flavors of honey, orange, and banana were nearly drowned out. But the builders wanted cold beer, and they got it. Patrons who hail the king of beers will appreciate it as cold as possible. Craft beer lovers, not so much. If you fall in the latter group, I recommend going for something bottled, like Bell's Two Hearted, which isn't on the verge of becoming a block of ice.
If you're just hanging out on the deck and want to get straight-up sloppy, order the impressively-sized 24-ounce concoction called Category 6, made with six different rums, various fruit juice, and available frozen or on the rocks. The slushy alcohol bomb will set you back 10 bucks ($8 during happy hour), and you'll certainly have a buzz by the time you reach the bottom of the glass. They've also got Hurricanes, if reliving a night on Bourbon Street is your pleasure. When it comes to both beer and cocktails, The Shelter appeals to a certain fun-loving clientele, not necessarily the crowd that's looking for craft beers and expensive pre-Prohibition cocktails.
The owners aim for good food, and their crowd-pleasing menu succeeds with certain dishes but misses in others. The bar food has a distinctly Southern accent. Crisp egg rolls are stuffed with pulled pork and collard greens, perfect for dipping into the mustard-based barbecue sauce ($9). On one visit, the fried pickles and okra ($7) were hot and crispy, but warm and soggy on another. They're served with chipotle-ranch dipping sauce, but the red pepper remoulade is a better choice for playing up their flavor.
The pimento cheese is sharp ($6) and very thick. The menu promised water crackers, but tortilla chips came out instead, and they were too delicate to dip into the cheese without cracking apart. Crackers and a knife for spreading are definitely required.
The BLT ($9.50) is very good, with layers of crispy fried green tomatoes and fresh mozzarella on buttery Texas toast, with a side of sweet potatoes fries.
The burgers, on the other hand, are inconsistent. Word to the wise: order a burger at least one temperature below how you'd like it. In fact, don't be nervous about going two below, as on multiple visits burgers ordered medium were served well done. When cooked properly, the burger is a decent option — not the best in town, but it does the job. The bun holds up, and the beef delivers a respectable juicy flavor. Priced at $9.50 to $11.50 with a side, that certainly qualifies as a reasonable price.
The best dish we had on the menu was the chicken bog ($5), a specialty of the house and a dish native to the South. The chicken, rice, and spicy sausage make for a tender and tasty pilaf.
The final component the owners promise is friendly service. Since the Shelter is more of a bar than a restaurant, it can be hard to get a drink on busy nights. We found friendly, respectable service at the bar during lunch hours, getting in and out in no time. Conversely, at dinner, the food took quite a while to arrive on a not-so-busy weeknight. But service always came with a smile, and that's what the owners specified, friendly, not necessarily prompt.
The restaurant is a little more than a stone's throw away from Shem Creek, and sits about 10 feet from Coleman Boulevard. You can't miss it. The big front patio holds more guests than the dining room. Garage doors split the bar down the middle and allow it to serve both indoor and outdoor patrons, who can find themselves seated on a hodgepodge of bar stools, including a real toilet seat with a side of toilet paper.
In the end, I'd have to agree that the Shelter is a great hangout spot, especially when the weather is nice. The owners got what they wanted: cold beer, fun drinks, good food options, friendly service, and moderate prices. This will be enough for some, but it won't satisfy everyone since finding the perfect hangout is a lot like finding the perfect woman. Everybody has their own dealbreakers. For me, it'd be that ice cold tap system.